Language-Learning Tech: Two Apps and a Microphone



Whenever I start working on my Spanish, the same phrase pops into my head as I wander about town: estoy caminando. I'm walking. I hear it over and over as my feet fall. (Estoy caminando. Estoy caminando.) The rhythm of the phrase is so nice.

It rang through my brain today on my way to the Watergate for the first time in years. I had the pleasure of flashing back to every other era in which I'd dabbled in Spanish. Rural Washington, Mexico City, Madrid. It was great. And then I remembered that it had been 13 years since I took my first Spanish class. If only I'd kept practicing -- even a tiny bit -- over all those years.

So, I decided to see the metaphor tucked in the phrase. I might not be able to fly yet, but walking will get you where you're going if you just keep doing it. So, even though I haven't finished distilling this community's ridiculously good suggestions for Spanish-language learning technology, I decided to walk a bit to keep my momentum going.

Here are the two baby steps I took:

  • Paid $9.99 and downloaded the Spanish vocabulary flash card app, WordPower, and committed to practice every day on the way into work. (Thanks for the tip go to Luke Allnutt.)
  • Downloaded the free El País app and committed to reading at least one article every day on the way back from work.

I also took one intermediate step. Several of you suggested that I find one book and really master it. "Get a copy of the book in the language you want to learn. Read the book. Over and over and over. I have done the same thing, in Spanish, with the Bible. It works," shutosub wrote in the comment thread. "Some observations: this pre-supposes that you have some knowledge of grammar and syntax. It works if you are a book-ish person."

I am quite bookish, but I was not about to read the Bible over and over. Luckily, there was another very long book that I am quite interested in, Roberto Bolaño's Los Detectives Salvajes. I even have a special plan for mastering this book: my dad's gonna podcast his reading of it for me. (I'll also get the Spanish and English versions of the printed book.)

Here's my thinking -- and this goes to the heart of my desire to personalize my language learning. One of my big problems in Spanish is that I feel like I am almost making fun of Spanish speakers when I use a proper accent. The roots of this pathology run deep; it has not given way with simple correctives. I needed something drastic to jump over this psychological roadblock. Finally I hit on using my father's voice as my pattern. When I haven't known what to do in life, imitating my dad has yielded great results. And in this case, I think it will have special resonance, too. I'm planning to listen to it while I run because I tend to focus really well during those hours.

So, those are my steps. Estoy caminando. I'll have a post aggregating tools and techniques for you tomorrow, along with a thicker learning plan broken up into three three-month periods between now and October. Thanks again to everyone.

Image: Roberto Bolaño at Santa Sangreyo.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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